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Best Pic Nominees Are So Fabulous, Choosing a Winner Hurts a Little

The task of sitting through each of the movies nominated for the best picture Oscar can sometimes feel like just that — a task, a chore, a tedious homework assignment.

That wasn’t the way I felt this year. For once, I enjoyed and admired all eight selections vying for Oscar’s top prize. They truly are the best Hollywood had to offer in 2014.

(If I have one complaint, it’s that the Academy failed to use one of its extra best picture slots to nominate the year’s most entertaining movie, “Guardians of the Galaxy.” I know, it’s a — gasp! — comic book movie, but it’s every bit as deserving as the more “serious” films on the list.)

Of course, the universal excellence of this year’s best picture bunch makes deciding which film deserves the coveted gold statuette all the more difficult. It’s made the race more unpredictable as well.

Despite the added challenge, I’m willing to take a stab at which picture will emerge victorious on Sunday night (the Academy Awards air at 5:30 p.m. on ABC). And while we’re at it, let’s discuss the best director race.

For predictions in the acting categories, click here.

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Best Picture

There isn’t a weak or overrated film among the nine nominees for best picture, but if I had to pick my least favorite, it would be “The Imitation Game.”

The story of British mathematician Alan Turing’s heroic code-breaking exploits during World War II, and subsequent persecution for his sexuality, showcases a powerful performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. However, some aspects of the drama feel sensationalized, more so when you realize how many elements of this biopic are actually fictional.

When it comes to dramas about eccentric British geniuses, “The Theory of Everything” tells the life story of physicist Stephen Hawking in a way that rings truer — it plays out, unexpectedly, as a messy love quadrangle — and with far more style. The fact that “Theory” is not a by-the-numbers romance, told from the point of view of Hawking’s long-suffering first wife, is its biggest strength. It also contains a couple of powerhouse performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, whose chemistry evolves from tender to heartbreaking.

“Selma,” another biopic vying for best picture, has been roundly snubbed this awards season. The Academy failed to nominate director Ava DuVernay — she would have been the first African-American woman to receive the honor — and lead actor David Oyelowo, who is a marvel as Martin Luther King Jr., radiating the civil rights legend’s charisma and expertly mimicking his rousing oratory style. It’s a shame because “Selma” is a compelling and necessary reminder of the power of protest in a divisive and confusing year for American race relations. I love the way DuVernay juxtaposes seemingly mediocre moments with great ones to elegantly humanize King.

The young upstart in the best picture category is “Whiplash,” debut director Damien Chazelle’s electrifying cat-and-mouse game between a sadistic music instructor (a terrifying J.K. Simmons) and the ambitious drummer (Miles Teller) he pushes to the edge. The audience is pushed to the edge, too, with an intensity few films achieve. There’s a precision, an originality and a dark side to this movie that is a whole lot of twisted fun. Like Teller’s drummer, however, Chazelle’s gotta pay his dues before he can win Oscar fame.

The most widely seen of the nominees is “American Sniper,” director Clint Eastwood’s account of the life of sharp-shooting Navy Seal Chris Kyle. Despite its popularity, “Sniper” is far too controversial to win the Oscar. Conservatives embrace Kyle as a hero. Liberals denounce the film for failing to condemn America’s messy Middle Eastern wars. This disparity is evidence that both groups have oversimplified what is actually a work of surprising complexity, a film that confronts the domestic consequences of war, something we tend to ignore.

As much as I admire the aforementioned films, there were three movies in 2014 that captured my heart and took my breath away with their technical innovation and artistry.

Director Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is undoubtedly his masterpiece. The filmmaker has reached the pinnacle of his talent for delightfully rococo pop-up book production design. The movie’s pulse is found in a hilarious, oddly touching performance by Ray Fiennes as a poetic, scheming gentleman concierge, presiding over a faded hotel in a fictional, war-ravaged Eastern European country. With all the visual flair of “The Royal Tenenbaums” and the bittersweetness of “A Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” the movie is a genuine charmer.

Sadly, “Grand Budapest” doesn’t have much of a shot against the two front-runners in the best picture race, even after winning the Golden Globe for comedy.

Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” took the Golden Globe for drama, as well as the top prize from the British Academy of Film and Television and dozens of critics’ groups. The film is neck-and-neck with “Birdman,” which captured the best picture prize from the producers and screen actors guilds. I find myself torn between these two remarkable films and I think Academy voters will be too.

Both films are exceptionally innovative. Director Gabriel Gonzalez Inarritu created the illusion that “Birdman” was shot in one single, exhilarating take, inspiring raw and captivating performances from a stellar ensemble cast. Michael Keaton’s turn as an insecure, aging actor trying desperately to build a last-minute legacy for himself is astoundingly funny and full of ugly, bleeding emotion.

Linklater filmed “Boyhood” a little at a time, over a period of 12 years, which lends the story of a boy’s ordinary but amazing childhood a rare and lovely verisimilitude. Armed with naturalistic acting by young star Ellar Coltrane — who becomes a young man before the audience’s very eyes — and a fine ensemble cast, subtle but transporting pop culture references and a killer soundtrack, the movie inspires intensely personal reflections on memory, wonder, mortality, family and the passing of time.

It’s a tough call, but I’m betting Academy voters will be seduced by the hopeful optimism and sweetness of “Boyhood.”

Don’t rule Inarritu out, though. (See my best director prediction, below.)

What Will Win: “Boyhood.”

What Should Win: “Boyhood.”

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Best Director

“Who is Morten Tyldum?” you might ask.

He’s the Norwegian director of “Foxcatcher,” whose thriller “Headhunters” was previously nominated by the Academy for best foreign language film. And he’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of winning this year’s best director Oscar.

Bennett Miller is a more established Hollywood presence, earning a director nod for “Capote” in 2006. Sadly for him, the race comes down to three veteran filmmakers finally getting their due from the Academy: Anderson, Linklater and Inarritu.

Inarritu recently took home the Directors Guild Award, a big predictor of who will win on Oscar night, while Linklater scooped up the Golden Globe and the BAFTA.

The contest is so close between these two, I’m betting the Academy will make the rare but not unprecedented decision to split the best picture and director prizes. Inarritu will win the gold for the edgy and awe-inspiring technical achievements showcased in “Birdman,” while Linklater’s “Boyhood” takes the best picture trophy.

I’m usually not a fan of such splits — logically, the year’s best director is the director who made the best picture — but I’m so torn between “Birdman” and “Boyhood,” I’d be happy to see them both triumph.

Who Will Win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Who Should Win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Photos: ca.complex.com, http://www.selmamovie.com.

 

 

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Let’s Celebrate ‘Boyhood’s’ Big Win

I don’t know why I was surprised when “Boyhood” swept up three of the top prizes at last night’s Golden Globe awards.

The uniquely made coming-of-age story emerged victorious with the best motion picture trophy for drama, the best director laurel and a supporting actress win for Patricia Arquette.

I think perhaps I was expecting something more weighty or topical to take the best drama trophy, like “Selma” or “The Theory of Everything.” But I probably should have seen “Boyhood’s” triumph coming.

After all, was there a more human, irresistible, hopeful, bittersweet film released in 2014 than Richard Linklater’s rumination on a decade of existence? It’s not the least bit shocking that the movie so effortlessly captured the affections of critics and viewers alike.

I don’t know whether “Boyhood” will fare as well at next month’s Oscars — the Academy Award nominations are set to be announced Thursday — but despite my love for “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” I wish Linklater and company all the luck in the world.

In the meantime, I’m reposting my original review of the film below, in honor of “Boyhood’s” big night at the Golden Globes.

Boyhood
Three and a half stars (out of four)
R (language, including sexual references, teen drug and alcohol use)
165 minutes

For many Americans, the last 10 years or so have passed in a blur. So many things have changed in our post-9/11 world that it’s impossible to process it all. That’s why Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age tale, “Boyhood,” is so remarkable. In spanning the childhood of Mason, a kid from Texas who is at once ordinary and extraordinary, the film functions as a vivid time capsule of the past decade.

Watching “Boyhood” sent me flashing back to my wedding in 2003, when I walked down the aisle to the sounds of Coldplay’s incomparable “Yellow.” It made me remember the magic of holding a new copy of J.K. Rowling’s latest Harry Potter book in my hands. It brought back the hope I felt, however short-lived, when Barack Obama was elected president.

It made me realize that my own daughter will be grown in the blink of an eye, every minute of her life miraculous. When Patricia Arquette’s character despairs, toward the end of the film, exclaiming, “I thought there would be more,” I knew exactly what she meant.

Your reaction to “Boyhood” is likely to be different but it will be no less personal. You don’t have to be a boy, a Texan, or a parent to be deeply impacted by this languid, lovely rumination on childhood, memory, family and the small but glorious moments that make a life. Watching the movie is a surreal and amazing experience.

Linklater’s obsession with aging and time previously manifested itself in the “Before” trilogy, which charted the on-again, off-again romance of vagabond lovers Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) over the course of 18 years. The trilogy’s first installment, “Before Sunrise,” brims with youthful romance, while the latest chapter, 2013’s “Before Midnight,” is older, wiser and more painful to watch. It won’t exactly come as a surprise if Linklater should choose to reunite Delpy and Hawke for another rendezvous, say, 15 years from now.

“Boyhood” is an even more ambitious project. Linklater filmed it over 12 years, gathering his cast annually for a few days of shooting. The movie’s magnetic star, Ellar Coltrane, was just 6 when production began. He was 18 when it finally wrapped, so the audience is treated to the rare and strange experience of watching this young man grow up on camera, while the adult actors age right along with him. It’s an approach that resounds with authenticity, throwing into stark relief the sentimental artifice of virtually every coming-of-age movie that has come before.

“Boyhood” is the story of Mason, who we first see as a scruffy but thoughtful kindergartener, circa 2002. Mason lives with his struggling single mother (Arquette), who has terrible taste in men but is fiercely protective of her children, and older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei), who annoys him by singing Britney Spears songs.

Mason and Samantha find themselves uprooted when mom moves the family to Houston so she can attend college. The migration leads to a reconnection with the kids’ absentee dad, who could very well be Hawke’s slacker musician from “Reality Bites,” 10 years in the future. To his ex-wife’s chagrin, the father attempts to forge a relationship with his children over bowling and drives in his awesome car.

As with the “Before” trilogy, there’s no conventional Hollywood structure to “Boyhood.” The film takes a meandering approach, checking in with Mason each year and not necessarily at the most dramatic points in his childhood — a poignant reminder that it’s not always the major milestones that shape us, but a collection of small events.

Linklater traces Mason’s path to adulthood, from traumatic haircuts to family squabbles, bullying in the school bathroom to camping trips with dad. We watch Mason do what most kids do — play video games, shirk his homework, take an interest in the opposite sex — and it’s fascinating.

In a gradual and incredible cinematic alchemy, the dreamy, shaggy-haired boy who asks his father with utmost gravity whether elves exist transforms before our eyes into a cynical, skinny, quietly charming teenager with a passion for photography, a first girlfriend, a first job, college plans and lots of questions about the meaning of it all.

As a road map to the various stops along Mason’s journey, Linklater brilliantly uses pop songs of the decade and subtle references to changing technology, politics and pop culture. We know roughly when and where we are because Arcade Fire is playing on the radio, or there is a conversation about the Iraq War, or someone is watching a Lady Gaga video. Since the movie was filmed in the moment, there are no flashy attempts at retro costuming or art design. It feels real.

The film’s intensely naturalistic tone mimics the unpolished rhythms of improvisation. It’s actually painstakingly scripted, drawing from the filmmaker’s Texas boyhood. The movie’s sprawling scope is casual but electric, although it runs on for too long, clocking in at almost three hours. I suppose if I spent the last 12 years shooting a film, I’d be reluctant to whittle it down, too.

In casting Coltrane, Linklater hit the jackpot. How could he know this young actor would remain such a marvel over 18 years of growth, even through the awkward stages? And Hawke is so winning as a flawed father who nevertheless loves his children and really tries, in contrast to the string of alcoholic stepdads Mason’s mom brings home. Here’s hoping he never has to squander his talents on another “Sinister” or “The Purge.”

“Boyhood” celebrates parents, no matter how imperfect, and the way they protect and nurture their children, and acknowledges the many people — siblings, teachers, bosses, family friends — who influence who we become. It’s one of the few films that provides a clear-eyed view of 21st century families and its view of that tarnished but still sacred institution is sweetly hopeful.